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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Graphic Content: Part 2 Journalism and Voyeurism

      In April 2007 Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring dominated the news. Outside the Lines and SportsCenter showed video of dogs in violent combat, and were stung by viewer backlash.
      One viewer wrote: “I'll be honest: I turned that story off when they started showing the tapes of the dog fights...that was one of the few times where I completely and totally disagreed with an ESPN decision. Dogfighting is awful, we know it's awful, you don't need to show the tapes.”
      Those were the words of ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, in an online chat. Simmons laid bare the risk of graphic content. If he turned the channel, anybody might.
      But that’s only half of the risk - viewers also turn away from indifference. Graphic content can hold or build an audience, in its appeal to the intellect, through effective journalism, and to the gut, through voyeurism.
      In its decisions, ESPN must consider its own brand, as well as that of its parent company, Disney, says producer Ben Houser.
      Yet, if ESPN uses graphic content for journalism, and another network uses it to exploit voyeurism, a cynical public might not make a distinction, or care.
      This two-edged sword that is graphic content asks two subjective questions of producers: 1) is it too graphic? 2) is it necessary?
      When Outside the Lines pushed to use the moment of contact - baseball against skull - in the Gunnar Sandberg story, Sandberg’s parents refused. The two diametrically opposed views reflect the nuance of the issue.
       “Well, their motive was to protect the privacy of their child and their family,” said coordinating producer Tim Hays. “Our judgment is based on two completely different criteria; what's appropriate and what represents the best interest of our viewers. We have to make a call that balances those two factors. We wouldn't use a piece of video that is particularly gruesome or gratuitous, even if the viewer would like to see it. However, if we feel like it's an important part of the story, we have to consider it.”
       Said Dwayne Bray, head of the Enterprise Reporting Unit: “We never want to be gratuitous. We use what we need to tell the story, and nothing more. If the storytelling is strong enough, we believe, then you don't need to exploit graphic or violent video images to enhance viewer engagement.”
       How graphic is too graphic? Where is the line between necessary and gratuitous? The Radio Television Digital News Association counsels “particular compassion to victims of crime or tragedy” and offers up even more questions to help news organizations decide.
       Lots of questions, no easy answers.
       Producers say they weigh criteria on a story-by-story basis, but it also appears to be the case that it is weighed on a show-by-show basis.
       The story about alleged pedophile Bobby Dodd, former head of the A.A.U, and his accuser, Ralph West, ran in December on Outside the Lines, while an abbreviated version ran on SportsCenter.
      “SportsCenter decided - after some discussion - to bleep out the word ‘masturbate’,” said producer Carolyn Hong. “Outside the Lines did not bleep it out of our long piece...I understand that some of the staff were complaining that their kids would see the broadcast.”
       Viewers were given a warning about the language in the lead-in to the story, Hong said. One broad area of agreement is that viewers should be warned if there is any doubt about the material.
       Producer Martin Khodabakhshian recalled an HBO story about black market horse slaughter that did not warn viewers.
       “They showed horsed being sliced through - it felt like the Silence of the Lambs,” said Khodabakhshian. “I felt offended that they didn’t warn us this was coming.”
       Beyond that, producers apply their own rules of thumb.
       Jose Morales, in his piece on motocross riders, used crashes in which the injuries were not permanent, though he would not use the fatal crash of Jeremy Lusk, nor would he have used the moment of impact - if he had obtained it - that paralyzed Stephen Murray.
       “I think it’s fair to say that the degree of injury has an influence on my decision,” said Morales.
       On the other hand, producer Yaron Deskalo said that, in his 2010 piece on the playing fields of Bhopal, India, he did not hesitate to use rows of dead bodies from the 1984 pesticide factory disaster “because there was not a lot of blood, which is the danger.”
       E:60 executive producer Andy Tennant advises special caution “on stories involving dogs, horses and children.”
      The time slot of a show is a factor, producers said. A weekend show in the morning or afternoon could have a larger viewership of children. Parental caution should be advised early and often for questionable material.
      E:60 coordinating producer Michael Baltierra suggests more restraint with domestic stories than with international, because the emotional impact is greater if the image is closer to home.
     “You probably wouldn’t show a severed head in Cleveland,” he said.
      To that point, graphic content is defined by community and cultural standards, which vary from region to region, country to country, and are in constant flux. But as technology evolves, and citizen journalists feed You Tube and social media, community and cultural standards change. Today’s graphic content may be tomorrow’s elevator music.
     Which explains why, in the future, Yaron Deskalo’s decision not to air a flapping skull in Bahrain will be even more difficult.
     “The definition of what a journalist is has changed,” Deskalo said. “Those of us trying to tell a balanced story have to be more aware of what is being shown across the full spectrum.”

Posted by Steve Marantz on January 19, 2012

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Graphic Content: Part 1, Deskalo’s Dilemma

          Arab Spring brought revolution to the Middle East and, inevitably, graphic content to media.   In producing a story for E:60 about political repression in Bahrain, Yaron Deskalo found ample video of carnage, much of it shot by non-media with personal devices.
          Deskalo’s task was to tell the story with proper context, texture, and tone - to use graphic content and not be used by it.  Into his Sorcerer’s Brew went video of a bloodied man on a gurney, a bloodied protestor on a street, shootings of two protestors on the streets, and a man with a bloodied head on an operating table.  Then a snippet gave him pause.
          “Someone’s head was literally blown up,” recalled Deskalo.  “A grenade had opened up his skull and it was in fragments - the guy was being carried and his head was flapping.”
          The shot had come from a private flip-cam inside a Bahraini hospital. On the one hand it conveyed the brutality of the conflict.  On the other it was repulsive enough that viewers might click away. 
          The tightrope was familiar to Deskalo.  In May 2010 he produced an E:60 piece about Liberians who lost a limb in that country’s civil war more than 20 years ago and who found comfort in playing soccer.   That piece, “Survival 1”, featured a severed head on a table and a decapitated body on a street, as well as a maggot-infested skeleton, and tape of a man being clubbed.  Those images were appropriate, Deskalo had decided, because the story was about amputees - the graphic content spoke to the theme of the story. 
          But this call wasn’t as clear.  The Bahrain story was about political repression; the injuries were peripheral.
          Deskalo’s dilemma, as defined by the Radio Television Digital News Association, is that, “the visual images always overpower the spoken word. Powerful pictures can help explain stories better or they can distort the truth by blurring the important context of the report.”
          Explain or distort, either or both, take your pick.  ESPN producers routinely wrestle with graphic content.
          In June 2010 Outside the Lines produced a show about the dangers of metal bats.  Gunnar Sandberg was a high school pitcher in California who nearly died after being hit in the head by a line drive off a metal bat.  His parents had the only video of the incident, and they gave it to OTL with the stipulation that the moment of contact - when the ball hit Sandberg’s head - not be shown.   But that was what OTL wanted to show.
          “We tried to convince them otherwise, because seeing it would make for a more complete telling of the story,” said coordinating producer Tim Hays.
          Sandberg’s parents held firm and the moment of contact was not aired.
          OTL pushed last summer in its reporting on Shannon Stone, the fan who fell over a center field railing, to his death, at Arlington Stadium trying to catch a ball tossed by outfielder Josh Hamilton.  In an interview with a man who sat next to Stone, and tried to grab him, OTL ran tape of the fall not once, but twice. 
          “The video clearly showed the man trying to grab Mr. Stone, and since it was such an important part of the story we used the video a second time so that the viewer could see what the man was describing,” said Hays.
          OTL producers knew the second showing could draw criticism.
          “Others might have seen it as gratuitous, but in our judgment it wasn’t,” Hays said.
          As often as producers push for graphic content, they pull back.
          In a 2009 story on the dangers of freestyle motocross, producer Jose Morales declined to use the crash that killed rider Jeremy Lusk.
          “After securing video of the crash and watching it, it was clear to me that I wouldn’t use it,” Morales said. “It was just too violent.  Jeremy’s body literally snapped in half.  It was gruesome.”
          The story, which ran on OTL and SportsCenter, covered Lusk’s death with a SportsCenter announcement, and a sound bite from Lusk after he won a gold medal at the X Games.
          Earlier in the piece, Morales showed rider Stephen Murray at the start of a stunt that would end with him paralyzed from the neck down.   Morales did not have tape of the moment at which Murray snapped his neck.  Even if he had, he says he would not have used it. 
          Instead, Morales dipped to black, carried the announcer’s call, and showed the reaction of other riders.
          More restraint? OTL reported the story of Bobby Dodd, the former head of the A.A.U. alleged to be a pedophile, and interviewed Ralph West, who claims to have been molested by Dodd.   The interview was well along when West, visibly shaken, arose and walked toward the back of the room.  Producer Carolyn Hong’s cameras stayed on West as he puked.  He still was mic'd, and she picked up the sound.
          The question was not whether to air the moment - because it conveyed West’s distress and made his story more believable  - but when.
          “We had a number of discussions amongst us, with some people believing that the moment should play up high in our piece,” Hong said.
          There also was a thought to amplify the sound of West puking.  But in the final cut, the moment was aired when it occurred, near the end of the interview, and the sound was not amplified.
          Sometimes a compromise is struck.
          Producer Ben Houser had graphic photos of the mangled left leg of Nate Winters, a Florida boy who was in a 2008 boating accident and came back to become a high school pitcher.  The photos came from Winters’ parents, both doctors, with permission to use them.
          “The photos were not easy to look at and I don’t have a weak stomach,” said Houser.  “But in the context of the story we determined that you had to see what he went through relative to his coming back and pitching.”
          Houser’s final cut for E:60 found a middle ground.

          “We blurred the photos - they’re not 100 percent crisp high def in focus,” he said.  “You can make out that the leg was severed, but we took the edge off.”
          In the case of the flapping skull, Deskalo put it into a rough cut and showed it to E:60 colleagues. 
          Producer Martin Khodabakhshian took one look and said, “It’s too gross.  You’re going to lose people.”
          Nobody disagreed and Deskalo removed it from the final cut.
          “At the end of the day we just decided we had so many great images that we didn’t want to distract the viewers,” Deskalo said.
          Part 2 will explore guidelines and best practices for graphic content.       
Posted by Steve Marantz on January 17, 2012